Form Better Meeting Habits as we Transition to Virtual Work
We’ve all been there. From the day's first glimpse at our calendars, the majority of our workday is devoted to meetings. By the end of the day, we feel like we were busy, but we have little to show for it. Our mounting list of to-do’s remain untouched, and those supposedly important meetings produced few material takeaways or action steps for anyone in attendance.
We're not alone. A recent survey of 182 senior managers found that 65% said meetings keep them from completing their own work and 71% reported meetings are unproductive and inefficient (Perlow, 2017).
Research and practice agree. Meetings aren’t as effective as we’d like them to be. They steal time from us that could be used to complete individual tasks and then don’t use that time effectively.
There are plenty of reasons that meetings are letting us down these days. During our virtual consulting cohorts, we address two of these reasons head-on: unclear or unrealistic ground rules and unshared information. As we explore these two obstacles, we’ll reveal 6 practices we employ during our virtual meetings to overcome them.
Unclear or Unrealistic Ground Rules
Most meetings start with at least two failed assumptions. First, we assume that everyone knows why they are there. And second, we assume that everyone knows what needs to get done. And since we believe everyone is on the same page, we don't create an agenda for meetings, which gives way to a "popcorn style" conversation. 60 minutes of unstructured back-and-forth go by, and nothing gets done.
There are hundreds of meeting types, but we find it especially important to delineate between two purposes:
1) to create a high quantity of good ideas
2) to analyze options and make decisions
The research is clear that these two types of meetings require two different types of thinking. We engage divergent thinking to create options and convergent thinking to make choices. In spite of this reality, structure and ground rules continue to be avoided in most meetings.
In particular, the mistaken belief that structure thwarts creativity in groups is pervasive. To the contrary, we've learned that an appropriate amount of structure encourages creatives to make their unique contributions at the right place and time. Additionally, lack of structure can prevent decision-makers from making a decision if the meeting purpose is unclear.
In light of this reality, our virtual meetings always have an agenda, so you will always know what is required of you to achieve the best results
In addition, if the goal is to come up with new ideas, our meeting should look different than if the goal is to analyze options and make decisions. Successful meetings have a purpose and structure that are in sync with each other.
For example, research shows that groups are pretty good at divergent thinking, that is, analyzing options and making decisions. But when it comes to creating the highest quantity of good ideas, groups underperform individuals.
In his 2017 Harvard Business Review article, Your Team Is Brainstorming All Wrong, author Art Markman suggests that better results come from allowing individuals to work alone first before working as a group. Our virtual cohorts are designed specifically with this observation in mind. We provide space for your team to engage in the type of thinking required to achieve the goal of each interaction
With a move towards virtual work, we have the opportunity to right a wrong: meeting length. Don't get me wrong, the annual off-site has its place, but most meetings that require attendees to sit in chairs for hours and attempt to engage as the meeting popcorns back-and-forth between the two or three most talkative people in the room are ineffective, wasteful, and leave everyone drained.
Instead, most of our consulting meetings are limited to 90 minutes, because it can be difficult to be productive for an extended period of time. We also spread touch-points out over several weeks to give attendees time to think critically on their own and bring valuable insights back to the group.
It is natural to assume that two heads are better than one, but Stasser and Titus further illustrate why groups underperform individuals in Hidden Profiles: A Brief History:
Like Jack and Jill, if a person's natural tendency is to focus on—and trust—less valuable information that each party in the group already knows, we must create space for our participants to reveal unique information that they only know. Effective facilitation of meetings is a big help, but in a virtual context, an actively moderated chat is another effective way to encourage people to share without feeling like they are interrupting or disrupting the conversation.
If you've ever withheld information during a meeting to avoid disruption, you're not alone. There's a term that explains why we might avoid looking ignorant, incompetent, intrusive or negative by not asking a question, admitting a mistake, offering ideas, or critiquing the status quo: psychological safety. First introduced in 1999 by Amy C. Edmondson, an organizational behavioral scientist at Harvard, psychological safety is defined as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”
Even with high psychological safety, one or two people may dominate a conversation. It's not inherently wrong to speak up often in meetings. It's also not wrong to sit back and choose your words more carefully. But it is wrong to assume that the loudest person always has the best ideas. A good facilitator will be cognizant of different personalities and work to ensure all participants are heard. The effort to be inclusive is not just meant to be courteous or hand out participation ribbons. It also reveals valuable unshared information and achieves a better result.
Large groups can reduce the likelihood of a person sharing unique information, which is why we typically limit our cohorts to 5-person teams. In larger settings, we rely on breakout rooms to ensure that valuable unshared information is given a chance to be revealed.
Coming up with new ideas can be an abstract process. You may like or dislike an idea but find it difficult to put together a logical argument to support your position in the moment. Add in low psychological safety—potentially exacerbated by race, gender, or cultural factors—and you may feel a strong pull to go along with the status quo. You simply agree, because the headache involved with being put on the spot to argue a salient point may not feel worth it.
For this reason, we make full use of embedded voting and polling features within our suite of online tools. Polling allows individuals to voice opinions anonymously and then reflect between group meetings. When we meet again, individuals are more prepared to discuss their opinions openly and collaboratively
Setting a New Precedent
The precedent for in-person meetings at your place of work have probably already been set. And over the years, you’ve picked up some habits. For the lucky few, that means starting meetings on time, always having an agenda, putting away devices, and engaging the entire group. For the rest of us, it means starting late, not knowing what we’re trying to accomplish, multitasking, and listening to the same people talk. If you’re in the second camp, it's not a lost cause, but it does take intentional effort and time to change the precedent.
There are plenty of obstacles to good virtual meetings, not limited to distractions at home, internet glitches, and difficulty focusing virtually for extended periods of time. But unlike in-person meetings, virtual tools are new territory for many of us. We have the opportunity to set different ground rules and form better habits from the beginning. Organizational psychologists like those cited in this article will undoubtedly focus more on virtual meetings in the near future, and we look forward to incorporating additional insights into our growing virtual consulting model.
Edmondson, Amy C. and Gene Daley. "How to Foster Psychological Safety in Virtual Meetings." https://hbr.org/2020/08/how-to-foster-psychological-safety-in-virtual-meetings
Edmondson, Amy. "Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams." Administrative Science Quarterly, 1999, Vol. 44, No. 2, pp. 350. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2666999
Markman, Art. "Your Team is Brainstorming All Wrong." Harvard Business Review, 2017, https://hbr.org/2017/05/your-team-is-brainstorming-all-wrong
Perlow, Leslie A., et al. "Stop the Meeting Madness." Harvard Business Review, 2017, https://hbr.org/2017/07/stop-the-meeting-madness
Stasser, Garold and William Titus. "Hidden Profiles: A Brief History." Psychological Inquiry, 2003, Vol. 14, No. 3/4, pp. 304-313. JSTOR, https://jstor.org/stable/1449693